In today’s competitive economy getting a high school diploma or its equivalent has become almost mandatory for people struggling to find a job.

But the CBS4 I-Team discovered there’s an entire industry taking advantage of those who need that diploma.

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And critics warn potential victims to beware, be careful and be smart before paying any on-line fees to a high school equivalency program.

CBS4 I-Team investigator Stephen Stock teamed up with the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (FCIR) to uncover what critics call high school diploma mills issuing virtually worthless diplomas.

Click here to see FCIR’s website.

To anyone who would show up, it looks like a regular run of the mill condominium tucked away just off West Sunrise Boulevard and North University Drive in Plantation.

But according to documents listed with the Florida Secretary of State as well as other documents found on Florida’s Department of Education website, the condo located at 8126 NW 17th Manor in Plantation was the address of Stanford National High School.

Stanford National High touts itself as an on-line high school equivalency program owned and run by a man named William D. Pepitone.

The website for Stanford National High claimed to be a distance learning school “to complete your high school education.” In other words, the website for Stanford National High School touts it as a legitimate alternative for people who previously dropped out of high school and who now want to get a diploma.

But experts say consumers must beware of supposed schools that look good on the web but offer little in reality.

“Somebody can make a website look professional and the consumer might not be aware of what’s on there (the website),” said Dr. Mark Elgart, President and Chief Executive Officer of AdvancEd, the parent organization of the prestigious Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) a national educational accrediting agency located outside Atlanta, Georgia.

“It’s important for consumers to use an organization like us to verify the quality of the educational options they’re considering for their children (or themselves),” said Dr. Elgart.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of programs on-line that purport to be a GED program or offer GED credentials (that are not legitimate),” said CT Turner, associate director of marketing and public relations for the GED Testing Service out of Washington, D.C.

“Some of these programs, it’s a gamble (as to) whether the college or university will accept that credential (or diploma),” said Turner.

And that’s the problem.

The CBS4 I-Team could find no college or university that accepts Stanford National High School’s equivalency diploma.

And the questions surrounding Stanford National High only grow as you dig deeper.

Stanford High’s website said it’s accredited by a group called the “Regional School Accreditation Association, LLC.”

Guess where Regional School Accreditation Association LLC is located?

That’s right, the same place as Stanford National High.

Florida State Division of Corporation records list the Regional School Accreditation Association LLC at the same condo address, 8126 NW 17th Manor in Plantation, where Stanford National High School is located.

And guess who owns the Regional School Accreditation Association LLC?

You passed the quiz: William D. Pepitone is listed as owner and director on Florida Division of Corporation records.

Broward County property records show the condo is also Pepitone’s home.

When the CBS4 I-Team went to the condo to ask questions, a woman identifying herself as Bill Pepitone’s wife answered the door.

“Why don’t you go to his school,” said the woman.

I-Team investigator Stephen Stock asked to clarify “Which school? The one on South University?”

“4188 South University Drive,” the woman answered.

“4188 South University?” Stock said. “I’ll do that.”

So the CBS4 I-Team went to that address: 4188 S University Drive in Davie.

It is an address that was also once listed on Florida’s Department of Education’s private school directory for Stanford National High School.

Click here to see a copy of that Florida Department of Education’s private school directory.

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At 4188 South University Drive in Davie, the I-Team found another school, Westlake Prep Academy.

It’s the same school where Pepitone’s son, Bryan, told the I-Team, that William D. Pepitone had once been headmaster and where on the telephone William D. Pepitone had earlier agreed to meet us to speak with us.

But when the I-Team investigator arrived at the pre-arranged time to meet William D. Pepitone a woman who answered the door identifying herself as Robyn said Pepitone had nothing to do with the school.

Florida Division of Corporation records list Robyn Pepitone as the registered agent, a director and contact person for Westlake Preparatory School, Inc., 4188 S University Drive, Davie, Fl.

Click here to view the Division of Corporations record.

I-Team investigator Stock asked, “He (Pepitone) is not here?”

“Not today. No,” said “Robyn.”

“The Department of Education does not regulate private schools,” said Mc Nelly Torres, a reporter for the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, “which I think adds to the problem.”

FCIR Reporter McNelly Torres discovered that while dozens of organizations accredit hundreds of distance learning schools around the country… only a handful are officially recognized by the United States higher education community.

Torres’ investigation found that, often, the many on-line distance learning businesses issue diplomas that aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

Click here to read Torres full report at FCIR.

“We have always heard and seen the stories about high school diploma mills but the Internet has opened the floodgates for all these operations to propagate,” said Torres.

“I graduated, supposedly with honors on it (the diploma),” said Rodolfo Rodriguez of Davie.

The 24 year-old Rodriguez is an unemployed father who said he spent $350 to get an on-line diploma from another web based high school equivalency program, Continental Academy based in Miramar.

Continental’s diploma is accepted by some colleges but not accepted by others.

In fact, when Rodriguez went to enroll at one college to get a technical degree he was told the school would not accept the Continental diploma.

“I want to better my life for myself,” said Rodriguez. “I want to go to college, you know. And (I want to) start a career. But I haven’t been able (to do that) because of this,” said Rodriguez as he held up the diploma that he hasn’t been able to use.

The CBS4 I-Team confirmed that Florida International University and Miami-Dade College both accept Continental’s on-line equivalency diploma when accepting potential students.

But the I-Team also learned schools such as Barry University and the University of Miami do not accept an equivalency diploma from Continental. Torres discovered other universities such as Virginia Tech also do not accept Continental’s equivalency diploma.

“A lot of the equivalency programs are not approved and they’re not the equivalent of a high school diploma or of a GED,” said Dr. Elgart of AdvancEd and the SACS.

Continental’s Chief Administrative Officer Joseph Aguilera told I-Team Investigator Stephen Stock on the telephone that an actual high school diploma is best and that a GED is a better alternative than an equivalent diploma like Continental’s.

But Joseph Aguilera also insisted that an equivalency diploma, such as the one offered by Continental on-line, serves a purpose for some people.

“We’re an alternative,” said Aguilera.

The GED Testing Service’s CT Turner said only one high school equivalency diploma is accepted nationwide, the GED. And a GED cannot be completed on-line.

“It’s really the only high school equivalency credential that is accepted and is actually awarded by all fifty states,” said Turner.

So why not just get a G-E-D?

Experts say some high school dropouts find the G-E-D to be difficult and time consuming.

The GED course work and test cannot be taken on-line and it takes many hours to complete.

For that reason Joseph Aguilera said that on-line equivalency diplomas do have a valid role to play in the future of some people.

William D. Pepitone did not return several messages left for him both by telephone and in person asking for his comment.

After the CBS4 I-Team began asking questions Stanford National High’s website was taken down and its state business records showed the company dissolved and shut down.

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Click here to view a copy of Stanford National High’s Florida business records.